It’s a challenge as old as democracy itself: gathering the input of the populace despite the barriers of distance and geography. In states like Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska — where enormous, mountainous obstacles stand between the capitols and portions of their populations — getting input is a hard fought battle.
Even with the assistance of modern communication tools, the barriers remain a formidable challenge to lawmakers seeking public testimony through the legislative committee process. In an effort to gather input from constituents in the eastern portion of the state, Washington is this session moving forward with a remote testimony program officials hope will help to bridge access gaps.
Secretary of the Senate Hunter Goodman said the system will better allow those divided by the state’s difficult geography to testify in front of legislative committees without the burden — or hazards — of travel to the capitol city of Olympia. At the moment, senate committees are the only legislative bodies in the state using the system.
“We wanted to do something that expanded transparency and access to Washington residents who were not close to Olympia,” he said. “We’ve got some rather large mountain passes, etc., that can be treacherous to try to navigate during the winter months especially. And so we wanted to set up a mechanism for those people to participate in hearing remotely so they didn’t have to make these large, long treks during a sort of dangerous season.”
Through partnerships with universities and community and technical colleges spread throughout the state, Goodman said committees are taking remote testimony on a case-by-case basis at the request of the respective chair people.
By using the state’s K-20 education network in the higher education facilities, participants have access to a well-established system to transmit their input.
“I think we’ve found thus far that we’ve been able to build relationships with some of our four-year universities and some of our community and technical colleges because they seem to have the technology readily available to conduct remote testimony," Goodman said, adding that although they have not yet reached the point of being “ultra-dependable” with the transmissions on one end or another, doing so remains a priority for most senate members moving forward.
“One problem we’ve had on the technology side in Olympia is we’ve got to do some major upgrades to our hearing rooms so that we can do simultaneous remote testimony in multiple hearing rooms so that if the Law and Justice is meeting at nine [o’clock] and the Ways and Means Committee is also meeting, could they simultaneously take remote testimony?” he said. “We don’t have that capacity right now. So we are working in the interim to do some technology upgrades in our hearing rooms.”
The integration of the video feed into the state’s public government access channel, the TVW network, has also been a consideration for officials.
Because of the system's evolving nature, the secretary of the senate said protocols also need to be established as to when and how committees take the testimony from an outside location, which he noted is likely something other states are also going through.
"That means, is it going to be the chairman’s or chairwoman’s prerogative when they take remote testimony? How are we going to deal with the logistical issues?" he said "That’s a challenge.”
For Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, the remote testimony program has already proven a valuable resource this legislative session. Just last week, he lent his testimony by going to the local community college instead of making the trek all the way to Olympia from his home in Pasco.
“I live in Pasco, which is about a four-hour drive from Olympia, and you have to go over the mountain passes, and all day yesterday [Thursday, Jan. 21], the mountain passes were closed because of avalanche danger,” he said. “There was a bill I was invited to testify on and if I had had to drive over there, I never would have made it.”
Mercier said because of limitations in hearing schedules and posted information, getting to the state capitol for a hearing can be difficult — not to mention time-consuming and costly.
“When you realize how the Legislature functions, ideally they give you five days when a hearing is going to be heard, but those notices aren’t always populated with the bills that are going to be under consideration,” he said. “So it really is important to provide the maximum flexibility in allowing the citizens to participate in this because of how short sometimes the notice is of what the Legislature is doing.”
Though Mercier said expert witnesses have historically been allowed to testify remotely, the general public has not been offered the same opportunity.
“The ultimate hope is that it becomes institutionalized into the legislative process and is something that is available for all committees, whether you’re in the house or the senate or multiple locations, because the technology is there. It’s not a technological issue,” Mercier said. “In the home of Microsoft and all the tech companies we have here, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this for Washingtonians.”
Goodman said he sees the program expanding to serve those living closer to the capital city as well. He said that in coming sessions, the program could also be used to provide legislative access to the less mobile elderly and disabled populations.
“I think that the next move here is going to be taking remote testimony from one of the colleges in Seattle … and facilitating remote testimony for elderly populations, for populations that may have trouble getting to Olympia based on physical incapacity, etc.,” he said. “We’re looking at this becoming an opportunity for constituents that just wouldn’t be able to get to Olympia.”
While Goodman admits there is more work to be done before he and senate members are satisfied, he said there is both momentum and support to push forward.
“We will not say ‘no’ just because it may be technologically difficult," he said. "We’re going to do everything we can to facilitate it right now."